Taiwan “Very Disappointed” by Absence at WHO Summit

In 2009, Taiwan was granted observer status at the United Nation’s World Assembly (WHA) on accommodations from Beijing as cross-strait economic relations were warming. With tensions between Beijing and Taipei high over Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s refusal to fully endorse the “one China” principle, Taiwanese delegates and media were not invited to this year’s meeting, which convened yesterday in Geneva. The AFP reports on comments from Taiwanese Health Minister Chen Shih-chung, who travelled to Geneva despite his lack of an invite to the WHA, over Taiwan’s first absence from the meeting in eight years:

“We feel very, very disappointed,” Taiwanese Health Minister Chen Shih-chung told AFP in Geneva on Sunday.

[…] “We want every assistance to keep up the international pressure so that this condition will not be happening again,” Chen said, refusing to say which country representatives he would be meeting.

Taiwan was expelled from the WHO in 1972, a year after losing the “China” seat at the to Beijing.

[…] “Obtaining a permanent observer (seat) is our final goal,” Chen said, acknowledging though that this was not likely to happen overnight.

[…] He warned that leaving Taiwan out in the cold could be detrimental to global health, with international cooperation and rapid exchange of information seen as vital to halting disease outbreaks [Source]

After Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party won landslide presidential and parliamentary victories last year, Beijing warned that WHA participation could be in jeopardy if Taiwan’s incoming government didn’t fully endorse the . Earlier this month mainland authorities explicitly blamed the DPP for Taiwan’s absence at this year’s WHA. Last week, China’s health minister stated that the door would remain shut to Taiwan until the DPP made concessions. In a recent interview with TIME, Taiwanese Vice President Chen Chien-jen said that Taiwan’s attempts to negotiate WHA inclusion with Beijing had gone ignored, and detailed the detriments to global health that the health minister warned of above:

Have you had any discussion with Beijing to try to find a compromise over this, either officially or informally?

Yes. Our Mainland Affairs Council has tried to keep in touch with mainland China to express our willingness to participate in the WHA but we did not get any kind of response at all.

You were talking about the health risks of Taiwan not participating in the WHA. Could you detail what those health risks are?

In 2003, during the SARS outbreak, [researchers from] all the nations in the world except Taiwan had accessibility to the SARS virus and to pandemic information, but we got nothing from the WHO. The only help was from the U.S. CDC. We got the virus from the CDC and started our molecular diagnostics. And then we got outbreak information, but we did not get any help from the WHO. When the WHO asked Taiwan to report all probable cases of SARS we did that, because we consider transparency to be very important for the control of pandemic disease.

Taiwan would like to be a good international citizen, especially with regard to global health. We reported all probable cases to the WHO and we also requested help but we got nothing from them: no virus, no information, no control strategies, nothing. We had to struggle and this delay caused Taiwan severe casualties. At that time, we had 150, 000 people quarantined at home and we had school closures. Finally we had 37 deaths from SARS. If we had had the chance to get the virus and all the information earlier, I don’t think that Taiwan would have suffered that much. […] [Source]

Taiwanese Health Minister Chen further elaborated in an op-ed published last week by The Daily Caller:

Disease knows no borders. Only by working together, leaving no one out, can we adequately address the challenges of emerging infectious diseases, which have been made all the more complex by the effects of globalization on our health environment. As influenza viruses are constantly evolving and circulating in humans, as well as a number of animal species, the specter of a potential influenza pandemic haunts us constantly. Outbreaks of avian influenza and novel influenza have repeatedly threatened global health security in the past few years. As a result, the (WHO) has continuously urged nations to invest more in the development and implementation of various pharmacological and non-pharmacological interventions against pandemic influenza. […] [Source]

A formal proposal to consider the inclusion of Taiwan at the WHA was rejected by the WHO General Assembly yesterday, a decision that China applauded. Xinhua reports:

“The decision defended the dignity of the UN General Assembly and the World Health Assembly resolutions, and showed the one-China principle is supported by the international community,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying.

[…] From 2009 to 2016, the central government made arrangements for Taiwan to attend the assembly as an observer under the name “Chinese Taipei,” in accordance with the “1992 consensus” reached between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, according to Li Bin, head of both the Chinese delegation to the assembly and the National Health and Family Planning Commission.

However, Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party has refused to recognize the one-China principle, which has undermined the political basis of Taiwan’s participation in WHO’s annual conference, Li said. [Source]

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price yesterday expressed disappointment that Taiwan wouldn’t be included in the WHO summit this year, and said that the U.S. looked forward to working with the next WHO chief. Current WHO director-general Margaret Chan, a Hong Kong national who Taiwan has been careful not to criticize directly for the current situation, will step down after her replacement is elected at the WHA today.